Weekend Preview: Arsenal Come Back Up Where We Belong

Good morning, and a hearty TOP O' THE LEAGUE to you all. It feels like it's been forever since we've been able to say that, far too long actually. As is ever the case with Arsenal, we didn't take the easy way, and with the upcoming fixture list it will be plenty difficult to maintain. But the belief is there, and based on the manner in which we took our place at the top, rightly so.

Following Chelsea's 7-2 demolition of a Sunderland team as decimated by injuries as Arsenal, we had a chance to assume first place, but only if we managed to win by 2. Considering we had won by a 2-0 scoreline at the Reebok three days earlier, the prospects were good for us coming into the home match against the same Wandertrotters.

From the opening whistle, the play went Bolton's way. Their midfield closed down our passing and didn't allow us an inch of space, and they pressed their advantage in possession into sustained attacks. A few minutes in, they were able to score due to another occasion of nightmarish defending by Arsenal. Diaby headed their ball into the box directly into the air, Clichy (in his first start since October) booted it right back up again, Davies got his head on it and the ball fell to an unmarked Gary Cahill (Bolton defender and somehow their top scorer), whose dribbler went right by Almunia and gave the visitors the lead. I'd like to say this sort of thing was uncommon for us, but sad to say it has become almost the norm.

Okay, 0-1 down, not the end of the world, and with us creating a few chances (including a nice one for Cesc, who should've done better) we could certainly score three on this day. From a Bolton corner, these optimistic thoughts were soon banished by Denilson, who decided the best way to keep his man from scoring was to trip him in the box. It was a clear penalty and I can still not see how our Brazilian thought he would get away with that, but referee Mark Wiley pointed to the spot. Almunia (who had just made a nice save off a Bolton free kick) guessed right and dove to his left, but didn't appear to commit, using alligator-arms instead of reaching out to block it. Taylor's shot went by him, and we were shockingly down 0-2 and decidedly on the back foot. Belief was rather hard to come by, and faith that we would win by 2 and go top was nonexistant, based on the way we were being out worked and outclassed. Outclassed by Bolton. I'll pause for a moment to allow that to sink in.

It seemed that this eventually served as enough of a kick in the pants for our boys to start playing. Cesc slalomed to the edge of the box, and instead of taking his shot, he played Eduardo in one-on-one with a perfect, deft pass. Eduardo, whose form in the last few months has been nothing short of ghastly, took a weak chance and his shot went right into the arms of Jaaskelainen, much to the Captain's chagrin. Not much more to say about it, but at least we had begun to attack Bolton in earnest. A free kick into the box was headed by Davies and beat his own keeper but just ricocheted off the bar and out. Lady Luck was doing her best to hide from us, inspite of our redoubled efforts... but just before the stroke of halftime, she gave us a long look, as Rosicky took a ball on the righthand edge of the box and struck a beautiful scorcher just inside Jaaskelainen's near post. The Bolton 'keeper seemed to be caught by surprise and was unable to make the save, and at 1-2, we were right back in it, and just before halftime. Cesc even got another loevly chance in before the break, a low shot that was saved again.

The atmosphere in Nevadas was amazing (especially for a Wednesday) over that last 10 minutes or so of the half, Arsenal charging forward and us cheering the boys on from 3,471 miles away (I looked it up) as though they were right in front of us. It was electric. I think that despite the scoreline, most of us were feeling optimistic about our chances in this match. As I expected, Bolton began the second half much more defensively, putting 10 men behind the ball, but we were unfazed. Our passing had a sharpness missing for much of the first 45 minutes and Arsenal seemed to be of one attacking mind.

Now comes the part where pantomime villain William Gallas ruthlessly cut down innocent midfielder Mark Davies, possibly using a scythe like the angel of death, and Arsenal picked up the ball and threw it into Bolton's net. Eeeeeeeexcept not really. Having reviewed the play over and over again since, this is how I view it: Arsenal were passing the ball patiently all over Bolton's half. Gallas tried a through-ball that was deflected back by Davies, and both players went for the ball, both met the ball, and it squirted away, while Gallas' foot managed to tread on Davies'. Arsenal played on, likely because we had been given no special treatment by Everton a couple of weeks ago in an even more obvious situation and had nearly been scored upon. Bolton allowed us to play into their box, and despite having a host of blue shirts in the box, Fabregas pushed by them with the ball and nutmegged Jaaskelainen to score the equalizer.

While I can understand the Bolton players' ire at play not being halted when Davies went down, but that ought to be directed at Wiley, not Arsenal. Another pretty obvious thing to do would be to play to the whistle. They could, and should, have prevented us from scoring in that moment with the number of players they had in the area, but they didn't. They laid off, and Cesc didn't, and he was rewarded. As for the foul itself, anyone still bleating about that either hasn't seen it or has only seen it through biased eyes. Owen Coyle has lost all respect I may have had for him when he referred to the incident as "akin to assault." That the Sky commenter went on about it like it was Martin Taylor on Eduardo was ridiculous, calling it a "terrible foul" was completely over the top. At one point, he said that Gallas was "taking his frustrations [at Kevin Davies winning headers] out on the little midfielder. Completely ridiculous. And saying that "Gallas doesn't even go for the ball, he goes straight for the ankle," just exposes him as either biased or inattentive.

It was also reactionary; if Davies had not gone off injured, not another word would have been wasted on it. And with talking heads still going on about it, I imagine fueled by xenophobia. Let's say it was Rio Ferdinand or John Terry in Willie G's shoes. Does anyone in their right mind believe that an English defender would be subjected to that nonsense over, at worst, a mis-timed tackle? Beyond that, the outrage displayed by Bolton players, as dirty a collection of shitkickers as you're likely to find in professional football (befitting a team largely constructed by Allardyce), is truly rich. My apologies to Mark Davies, who is a really neat little footballer who didn't deserve to be hurt, but his donkey teammates can go impale themselves. And that's all I'm saying on the subject, although I'll direct you to this article by Andy Townsend. Well-said, man.

At 2-2, the belief that we would win was with everyone. We had one point in our pocket but wanted the other two as well. And we didn't have to wait long; once play resumed, a Diaby cross off a break forced a corner kick. Cesc took the kick, and Davies beat Vermaelen to head it up, which was in turn headed by Diaby into the path of Vermaelen, who had used that moment to turn and create a bit of space in the box, and sent a delicious half-volley past Jaaskelainen. We had climbed back from 0-2 down to take a deserved (no matter what the press or talking heads say) lead. The breakneck pace of the match certainly favored us, and Bolton just looked beaten.

Cesc latched onto a long ball into the box, and was taken down by Jaaskelainen for ANOTHER obvious penalty, but this time it was Mark Wiley who waved play on. It was a carbon copy of the first penalty that Cesc was denied on Sunday... but I suppose we're used to that now. As the match wore on, we continued to possess, attack and defend above Bolton's level, until we broke through again. Denilson strode forward and took the ball from a falling Fabregas, dished to Eduardo, who went right to Arshavin, and Dr. Drei played a deflected one-two with Eddie before striking home beyond Jaaskelainen for our fourth. Interestingly, it was the first Arsenal goal I can remember for which Andrei didn't perform his patented "hush" celebration. Not that it mattered; we had gone top of the league on goals scored over Chelsea.

We weren't quite done, either. Substitute Carlos Vela took a ball cleared from our box up the left side and stroked a pass upfield for Arshavin, who smoothly beat two defenders to bring himself to the box with one man and the keeper left. What he should have done was slip a ball to the advancing Theo Walcott on his right, who'd have been clear on goal. What he did was dither in the box before his weak effort was saved by the 'keeper. Theo looked aggravated, and I don't blame him.

That was indeed how it ended, a 4-2, come-from-behind win to take us top of the table, past Chelsea on goals. The chavs do have a match-in-hand, but it feels damn good to go top for the time-being. Let the whingers whinge, let the media cry, we'll trade in our white hats for the black of bad guys. And yes, that rhymed, but I think it's a valid point. As Michael of Arsenal Station wrote:

We’re at our best when we’re the “bad guys.” Almost all of Wenger’s title-winning teams have had that kind of characterization for one reason or another. Wenger has always tried to cultivate team spirit and cohesiveness through the “Us against the World” mentality… and the press are the ones that make it possible.

And I can't but agree with that. It's dead-on. Let's hope this result has gone a long way to instilling that belief in the squad's abilities and strengthened the bonds in the team. It's going to be a rough stretch of fixtures coming up, and we're going to need all hands on deck.

No league matches for us this weekend, as it's Round 4 of the FA Cup. Speculation is that Arsene will rest a number of our starters and go with mostly Carling Kids for the tie with Stoke at the Brittania. I know it won't be popular, and Arsene leaves him open for every mouth-breathing pundit to criticize him for "disgracing the competition." But I can't fault him. We'd all love to win the FA Cup, but for me, the league takes precedence. If we lose any more players (having just lost Diaby to injury Wed. and Fran Merida on Sunday), a title challenge would be severely compromised. We'd all love a nice dessert, but it's hardly worthwhile if it's the only meal you get.

So hopefully our kids can do the business on Sunday. Stoke are already making rumblings about "roughing up" the Arsenal; surely there's no union of shitkicking football clubs out there that would require this, is there? Anyway, it wouldn't surprise me, but I hope our boys continue to give as good as they get... it seemed to work against the Wandertrotters.

No time to make predictions, as the post is going up late enough today as it is. I may or may not make it in to Nevadas on Sunday, being that it's an 8:30am match on the morning following my birthday festivities, so the odds are balanced on a razor's edge as it is. In any case, I hope you can all make it out and sing up the mighty Arsenal. We may be far away, but we NYC Gooners can make ourselves heard and felt, so let's live up to that.

And as always, you stay classy, my brothers and sisters in Arsenal...

- B, a Gooner.